Myrna Packer and Art Bridgman, a New York-based duo, are unusually deft and magnetic performers, as they made clear in Saturday night's concert at Mount Vernon College's Hand Chapel under the auspices of Dance Place.
They are very attractive individually -- blond Bridgman is in the Sam Shepard mold, with a huskiness in the shoulders suggesting disciplined athleticism; redheaded Packer is slender, long-limbed and sensuously pliant. Their dancing is at once suave, powerful, controlled, loose and incisive. They've been making dances together since 1978, and it shows in the unstressed quality of their rapport, as well as in the ways they play off their contrasting physical and temperamental makeups.
They're such good dancers they make their choreography look more substantial than it is. Not that it's bad -- the protean, oozy movement suits them well; it has its share of surprise and suspense; and it courses along with a nice sense of continuity. But, apart from Packer and Bridgman's bright personal allure and refinement, the dance designs seem rambling, redundant and thematically elusive.
The evening began with a premiere, "Primate Songs," that displayed the couple's stylistic proclivities -- spirals within spirals, complementary furlings and unfurlings, sudden lunges and flings, and interactive passages suggestive of contact improvisation techniques. The music, ranging from Edith Piaf to operatic choruses to Chopin, was intermittent, and sections were marked off with blackouts. In one part the two of them whispered unintelligibly to each other, while Packer supported and positioned Bridgman from behind -- like a puppeteer, or a choreographer. To the luxuriantly romantic Chopin (the "Andante Spianato"), each dancer took turns sitting and watching while the other did a solo, a section that ended with the pair moving in silky parallels. Later, Packer reclined on her back humming a tune, rising to step lively to her own accompaniment. The Piaf number returned, and the piece ended with the two thrusting and parrying vigorously.
Next came a pair of related solos, "Conversation 1" for Packer and "Conversation 2" for Bridgman, both of which seemed vaguely concerned with self-justification. Packer addressed fragments of conversation to unseen interlocutors. In silence, she regarded herself in an invisible mirror, trying out various alterations in appearance, lowering her blouse to daring de'colletage, pulling her hair to one side, lifting her ears a notch or two. To the strains of a Ry Cooder country waltz, she then "conducted" an imaginary group of musicians. At the end she marched briskly off, returning instantly with one raised arm.
The raised arm image was echoed in the start of Bridgman's solo, except that his was quivering like that of a subway straphanger. As he moved, he began a monologue on the subject of choreography as a legitimate occupation. In the most amusing passage, he recited questions about his personal success while thrusting fingers in his mouth and pulling his cheeks awry, as if he were being interrogated by a cloddish dentist.
In these first three pieces, one was never certain what the choreography was getting at. In the final 1981 protest duet, "Scenario for a Limited Nuclear War," the message was all too plain. To a voice-over exposition and satiric commentary on Reagan's neutron bomb program, the couple carried out an intendedly ironic dance counterpoint. The piece was much akin to Liz Lerman's "Docudance" series, but so heavyhanded in manner -- as the voices tallied the annual buildup of warheads, the dancers beat a crescendo on their chests -- that the impact was pretty well dissipated. The dancing added little to the verbal indictment.
Packer and Bridgman are superb dancers and that is its own reward, but one guesses they'd look ever better on sturdier choreographic terrain.